Journal of Experimental & Clinical Cancer Research
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BACKGROUND: Aberrant activation of the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K) pathway is common in many malignancies, including head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Despite pre-clinical and clinical studies, outcomes from targeting the PI3K pathway have been underwhelming and the development of drug resistance poses a significant barrier to patient treatment. In the present study, we examined mechanisms of acquired resistance to the PI3Kα inhibitor alpelisib (formerly BYL719) in HNSCC cell lines and patient-derived xenografts (PDXs).
METHODS: Five unique PDX mouse models and three HNSCC cell lines were used. All cell lines and xenografts underwent genomic characterization prior to study. Serial drug treatment was conducted in vitro and in vivo to develop multiple, clinically-significant models of resistance to alpelisib. We then used reverse phase protein arrays (RPPAs) to profile the expression of proteins in parental and drug-resistant models. Top hits were validated by immunoblotting and immunohistochemistry. Flow cytometric analysis and RNA interference studies were then used to interrogate the molecular mechanisms underlying acquired drug resistance.
RESULTS: Prolonged treatment with alpelisib led to upregulation of TAM family receptor tyrosine kinases TYRO3 and AXL. Importantly, a significant shift in expression of both TYRO3 and AXL to the cell surface was detected in drug-resistant cells. Targeted knockdown of TYRO3 and AXL effectively re-sensitized resistant cells to PI3Kα inhibition. In vivo, resistance to alpelisib emerged following 20-35 days of treatment in all five PDX models. Elevated TYRO3 expression was detected in drug-resistant PDX tissues. Downstream of TYRO3 and AXL, we identified activation of intracellular MAPK signalling. Inhibition of MAPK signalling also re-sensitized drug-resistant cells to alpelisib.
CONCLUSIONS: We have identified TYRO3 and AXL receptors to be key mediators of resistance to alpelisib, both in vitro and in vivo. Our findings suggest that pan-TAM inhibition is a promising avenue for combinatorial or second-line therapy alongside PI3Kα inhibition. These findings advance our understanding of the role TAM receptors play in modulating the response of HNSCC to PI3Kα inhibition and suggest a means to prevent, or at least delay, resistance to PI3Kα inhibition in order to improve outcomes for HNSCC patients.
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